Art, Action, and the Garden by Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester, Jr.

Gardens have special meaning. They are powerful settings for human life, transcending time, place, and culture. Gardens are mirrors of ourselves, reflections of sensual and personal experience. By making gardens, using or admiring them, and dreaming of them, we create our own idealized order of nature and culture. Gardens connect us to our collective and primeval pasts. Since the beginning of human time, we have expressed ourselves through the gardens we have made. They live on as records of our private beliefs and public values, good and bad

Designers and scholars have traditionally examined the garden from within the narrow boundaries of their separate disciplines. Modern theory has frequently divided these dimensions of garden meaning, reducing it to technology, to historic relic, or to art form. Our view is that meanings of the garden (as well as of the larger landscape of which gardens are a part) can only be understood today as a whole, as an ecology of interrelated and connected thoughts, spaces, activities, and symbols.

As an idea, the garden is part of traditional and modern social thought. The garden has long served as a way of thinking about nature and about culture and how each influences the other. The garden has been viewed philosophically as the balancing point between human control on one hand and wild nature on the other. The garden has represented safety from the threat of wild nature or escape from barbarian outsiders. The garden has been nature-under-control, an idealization of what society believed that nature should be and should look like

In the garden, as in society, there is an ongoing battle of seeming oppositions: male versus female, good versus evil, reaction versus revolution, self versus community, consumerism versus self-reliance, connectedness versus anomie, integration versus segregation, rich versus poor, real versus surreal, bigness versus smallness, sacred versus profane, science versus intuition, high versus folk art. Some of these conflicts in the garden are age-old, while others are a result of modern life (and a desire to control and order our personal worlds). In the garden these apparent irreconcilables are clarified and mediated because the garden accepts paradox. Anyone who has ever gardened knows that a garden represents constancy yet is ever-changing

The garden is a source of action requiring intimate and direct involvement. We cannot dig, plant, trim, water, or harvest with detached passivity. Gardening can hardly be done without getting hands dirty and, in most cases, getting earth under fingernails and blisters on palms. This is what many gardeners report as the essence of their actions. Gardening has important social and psychological benefits. It relaxes, teaches, and connects. The act of gardening provides relief from our often abstract and secondhand work. A small but growing body of empirical research substantiates these common-sense claims; gardening does reduce stress and contributes to wellness

Gardening is also a creative act providing many people with a medium for personal artistic expression. With skill, good dirt, and love, the garden produces beautiful sights, smells, and tastes
Every time a garden is born, there is the hope that the world will be made better by it, an un-self-conscious but radically utopian belief. Meaning resides in this power of the garden to express, clarify, and reconcile oppositions and transform them into inspirations.

Mark Francis is Professor Emeritus and past Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, where he founded the Center for Design Research. Randolph T. Hester is a professor emeritus iof Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design. The essay is an excerpt from the book The Meaning of Gardens, edited by Francis and Hester, a collection of writings organized around issues of Faith, Power, Ordering, Cultural Expression, Personal Expression, and Healing.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).